Hello, and welcome back to the latest edition SB Nation's most consistently numerical series of posts. This time around, I thought we'd tackle the following subjects:
- Carlos Gonzalez's run of success, and his wide home/road split
- The Padres' miserable slump, and the effect it's had on their standing
- Aroldis Chapman's arrival, and some of his hard-throwing counterparts
Dan Haren's reduced strikeout rate since switching leagues
- Jason Heyward's recovery from a thumb injury that put him on the DL
If it's all right by you, I'd like to get started now.
If you've been following the National League at all lately, you've probably noticed the NL West. If you've noticed the NL West, you've probably noticed the Colorado Rockies, who have kinda sorta lifted themselves off the mat to get back in the race. And if you've noticed the Colorado Rockies, you've noticed Carlos Gonzalez, who's been arguably baseball's top player for the last couple months.
On July 2nd, Gonzalez went 0-5 to lower his season OPS to a perfectly acceptable .811. Since that day, all he's done is bat .382 with 17 homers, 38 extra-base hits, and an OPS of 1.202. He's been on the tear to end all tears, and it's no coincidence that the Rockies have played better baseball during his run. Getting that kind of productivity from the middle of the order is a huge boost, and to hit like that as a good runner and capable defensive outfielder has made Gonzalez one of the league's most valuable players.
Something lies hidden in his numbers, though. Gonzalez plays for the Rockies, and the Rockies play in a hitter-friendly park, so you'd expect Gonzalez to post better numbers at home than on the road. But he's taken it to the extreme. To date:
Home: 1.212 OPS
Road: .733 OPS
Home: 38 strikeouts, 16 unintentional walks
Road: 75 strikeouts, 7 unintentional walks
That's a dramatic difference between productivity at home and away, to the tune of .479 in OPS. Carlos Gonzalez, it would appear, has taken tremendous advantage of playing where he plays, and has been exposed in other, less hitter-friendly environments.
There have been some extraordinary attempts to explain why what's happening is happening with Gonzalez. I'll point you to this one at Athletics Nation as an excellent example. That's not why I'm here. I don't want to try and figure out why Gonzalez has been so much better at home than on the road, especially if that means I would just step on the toes of other people who have already done the work.
Rather, I want to address something else. Upon seeing a split like Gonzalez's - or, say, Josh Hamilton's, as his OPS is currently 311 points better at home - there's a tendency to write his numbers off as a function of the ballpark. To say, "oh, his road numbers tell the truth, and the overall numbers are a mirage." When a player plays half his games in an extreme environment, a lot of fans are ready and willing to ignore what he does at home and just focus on what he does on the road, since the road numbers represent performance in a number of ballparks, while the home numbers represent performance in a single, crazy one.
It makes some kind of sense if you're trying to compare players in a context-free environment. Or if you're trying to figure out who would be a better fit for, I dunno, the Marlins or something. "Would we rather have Carlos Gonzalez or Mike Stanton?" "Well, Gonzalez hasn't proven he can hit that well away from Colorado."
When you're discussing player value, though, you absolutely cannot ignore a half season's worth of statistics. For one thing, it chops your sample size of data by 50 percent. And for another, that half season of numbers at home is meaningful. It doesn't matter in what sort of environment they're generated. Information can be gleaned from them if you're careful about what you're doing.
In Gonzalez's case, he's got a broad home/road split, but while he's kind of underperformed on the road, he's overperformed at home. You can't say he's been hurt by leaving Colorado without at the same time acknowledging that he's been far better at Coors Field than raw park adjustments would suggest. And that's a point in his favor. If - and this is a hypothetical if - Gonzalez is able to take better advantage of Coors Field than anyone else, that makes him more valuable. He becomes a part of the Rockies' home field advantage.
If you have a guy who shows a big home/road split in a hitter-friendly ballpark, or a big home/road split in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, you shouldn't just look at how he does when he's away. The park effect should definitely be a consideration, but the home numbers can't be ignored. They're real. He put them up. If someone is exceptionally hurt by a big ballpark, or takes exceptional advantage of a small one, that's significant when it comes to talking about his value.
Never just look at half the picture. Look at the whole picture, and adjust it appropriately. Yeah, Carlos Gonzalez has struggled on the road. He's also been incredible.
Sticking with the NL West - if you've been following the NL West lately, another thing you've assuredly noticed aside from Carlos Gonzalez is the Padres' big slump. San Diego has lost seven consecutive games to fall to 76-56, and a lot of people are wondering if this is signaling the end of the Cinderella run. That's the thing about an underdog that comes out of nowhere to fly to first place - whenever that team hits a rough patch, people assume that regression to expectations is imminent. People tend to be very loyal to their preseason forecasts, and slow to adjust them for actual results.
Over the course of their losing streak, the Padres have seen their division lead shrink from 6.5 games to three. Their hold on the division, and on a playoff position at all, has slipped, and is beginning to feel rather tenuous. For this reason, I think it's worth pointing out that, according to CoolStandings.com, their playoff odds remain 82.9%. This is the lowest among current division leaders, but it's still very high, and it's only about 14 percentage points lower than it was before the losing streak began.
CoolStandings believes that, were the rest of the season to play out six times, the Padres would make the playoffs in five of them. I think it's safe to say this does not accurately reflect the public concern. On average, in light of their slump, I think people would probably call the Padres' playoff odds a coin flip.
The difference? People are hyperaware of and somewhat married to the concept of momentum. CoolStandings is not, and in fact doesn't give any consideration to momentum at all. CoolStandings doesn't care that the Padres have lost seven games in a row. CoolStandings cares that the Padres are 76-56 and own a three-game division lead with a month left in the season.
And as much as we talk about things like losing streaks snowballing, I think we have to acknowledge that CoolStandings (and other calculators of playoff odds) has the right approach, here. What we know, right now, is that the Padres have had a very good season, and are currently in the midst of a slump. But how much does the slump really matter? What does it tell us, other than the fact that the Padres have lost seven games?
There just isn't much historical evidence for the predictive nature or significance of streaks. We love to talk about momentum, but at least as far as baseball's concerned, no one's ever been able to prove it exists in any form that makes a real difference. Sure, you can look at, say, the 2007 Rockies, or the 2007 Mets. But then you look at the 2010 Cardinals and the 2010 Reds. On August 11th, the Cardinals finished off a heated sweep of the Reds in Cincinnati, and assumed the NL Central division lead. Since then, the Cardinals have gone 5-13 and are currently eight games back. One would've thought that all momentum would be on their side after the sweep, but things have gone in the complete opposite direction.
I don't think it's right to say that baseball games are completely independent of one another. I'm sure there's some psychological effect of a winning streak, and I'm sure there's some psychological effect of a losing streak. However, I don't think these end up having much of an effect on the gameplay, and there's no compelling evidence that they do.
The Padres have lost seven games in a row, losing more than half their divisional advantage, and a lot of people are wondering if this is the end. While the team may be reeling, though, the players will be concerned only with going out and playing well, and what the Padres have proven from the beginning is that they're capable of playing pretty well pretty often. Even with the skid, the odds are still very much in their favor, and gun to my head, I think they shake this off and come away peaches.
The baseball world became very much aware of Aroldis Chapman this week, as the young Cuban phenom came up from AAA Louisville to show dominant stuff over a pair of relief appearances. He's flashed a sharp, oft-unhittable slider, but more notable, and the source of Chapman's fame, is the 100+ mile per hour heat. Chapman's appeared in just two games, and already he's thrown the three fastest pitches of the season, at 103.9, 103.8, and 102.7mph.
Chapman is clearly worthy of being placed on a pedestal, as his raw velocity is unmatched. Lost in all the hype over his promotion and debut, however, is the fact that, while nobody is quite his equal when it comes to fastball speed, 2010 has seen a number of pitchers show up and come close.
Installed in every stadium is a system of cameras and computers that spit out pitch speed, spin, and location data for every pitch thrown in every game. The system is known as PITCHfx, and the information is made publicly available through MLB.com's Gameday window. And according to PITCHfx, there have been 305 pitches thrown on the season that reached triple digits, and those pitches have been thrown by 19 different pitchers.
Those pitchers, in order:
This week may have brought us Chapman, but the week before brought us Anaheim's Jordan Walden, who's topped out at 100.5. Neftali Feliz has thrown 37 pitches at 100 or greater. Oakland's little-known Henry Rodriguez has done it 49 times. Joel Zumaya threw 149 before getting hurt. Chapman's in the lead, and he's likely to remain there, but there are a lot of guys nipping at his heels.
One could argue it's the year of the fastball, as this season's 19 pitchers to exceed 100mph at least once easily beats last year's total of 14.
One thing that's interesting to note is that, of the 175 swings that have been taken at 100+mph fastballs, only 34 of them have whiffed, for a contact rate of 81%. However, more than half of those swings have fouled the ball off, and only one has led to a home run. It may not be impossible to put the bat on a ball flying 100 miles per hour, but it's remarkably difficult to put it in play and do too much. All of these pitchers are working with a tremendous natural advantage.
When the Angels managed to trade Joe Saunders and a handful of youth to the Diamondbacks in exchange for Dan Haren, it was considered an absolute steal. The Angels gave up little of value, and in return they landed a fairly young, durable ace under contract through 2012 with a very reasonable 2013 option. Even though the trade wouldn't mean much as far as the 2010 playoff race was concerned, by springing at the right time, the Angels set themselves up to have a formidable rotation for years down the road.
And Haren, by and large, has pitched well since coming over. Over eight starts with the Angels, he's posted an ERA of 3.50 while issuing just ten unintentional walks. Back in the American League for the first time since 2007, Haren has picked up right where he left off.
There is, however, one small bit of concern, as shown in the following table:
Haren has pitched to 226 batters since settling in Anaheim, and he's struck out 43 of them, for a 19.0% rate that is a great deal lower than where it was with Arizona. Batters have posted a corresponding contact rate of 80.4% against Haren as an Angel, versus 77.2% against Haren as a Diamondback in 2010 and 76.4% against Haren as a Diamondback in 2009. Since returning to the American League, Haren's pitches have been finding more bats, and it's more troublesome when you realize that his best start since the trade came against the hapless and hopeless Seattle Mariners.
Haren, it must be said, has remained a very good pitcher with the Angels. With 43 strikeouts and ten unintentional walks over 54 innings, it's not like any alarm bells should be sounding. He's durable, and he's excellent. But people should be aware of the drop in strikeouts. In the early going, Haren with Anaheim has looked a lot more like Haren with Oakland than Haren with Arizona, and while Haren with Oakland was a valuable starter, he wasn't the stopper he was in the NL. In other words, based on what we've seen, Angels fans can expect Haren to be more like Zack Greinke 2010, and less like Zack Greinke 2009.
Jason Heyward rather famously arrived with a bang. In his first at bat of the season, and the first at bat of his Major League career, to chants and a standing ovation, he took Carlos Zambrano deep to right field for what still stands as the third-longest home run of the year, at 476 feet. Jason Heyward made an immediate impact and hit the ground running, as his OPS remained north of 1.000 well into May.
It was on May 14th, however, that he injured his thumb running the bases, an injury that a month and a half later would finally force him to the disabled list. And it was an injury that rather clearly took its toll on his offense. Since returning in July, though, he seems to have gained much of his early-season strength right back. The following splits say all you need to know:
Through May 14th: 1.033 OPS
May 15th - DL: .689 OPS
Post-DL: .965 OPS
Heyward's thumb injury is one from which most said he wouldn't be able to recover completely during the season, but the time off has clearly done him a lot of good, as he's back to being a driving force from the middle of the Atlanta batting order. He's batted .338 since coming off the DL, and he's batted .533 over his last 11 games.
Those splits paint a very dramatic picture. If you're more of a visual person than a numerical one, though, then we can always rely on the spray charts from TexasLeaguers.com. Here, we have another way of looking at the same thing. Following are Heyward's spray charts, corresponding to the same spans of time shown above.
Early in the year, you can see Heyward driving the ball nearly to all fields, as he hit homers to right, right-center, center, and left-center. After the injury, his power was reduced, and he started to find the warning track a lot more. Since coming back, we haven't seen the power the other way, but his pull power has shown up. Note the clump of homers and extra-base hits to right field that was almost completely absent during the time between the injury and his trip to the DL.
Heyward himself acknowledges that his thumb is still sore, and that it won't get better until the winter. But right now, it's doing a lot better than it was, and if this is what Jason Heyward looks like at 90% or so, I think the Braves will be more than happy to take it.